Four Initiatives to Help Cuban Political Prisoners & Their Families

Protest in San Antonio de los Baños on July 11, 2021. Photo: screenshot

By Laura Roque Valero (El Toque)

HAVANA TIMES – After mass protests broke out in Cuba on July 11th, over 1300 people were arrested by the police, according to a count by NGOs such as CUBALEX and Justicia 11J. Today, 697 Cubans continue behind bars, including 14 minors.

Many of the people detained for having protested against the Government, have been tried in summary hearings and others are awaiting trial, charged with crimes such as sedition and public disorder. Sentences in some cases could reach up to 30 years in prison.

The social uprising on July 11th (11J) has driven another overwhelming movement that began to mobilize on this day, in support of those who took to the streets to protest and were arrested.

Initiatives have been set up both in and outside Cuba, to raise money, collect medicine, food, clothes and shoes for prisoners and their families, amidst the country’s health and economic crisis. They also provide spiritual guidance and legal advice throughout the proceedings.

Here at elTOQUE we’ve summed up some of these initiatives that support political prisoners in Cuba.

Te presto mi voz

Luciana Covin, a Cuban living in Europe, took her first steps as an activist just two years ago. As the granddaughter of a political prisoner, she became interested in researching the subject and raising awareness with stories of other prisoners. That’s when she decided to create the Te Presto Mi Voz website, which is moderated from abroad by a team of five people and has many collaborators.

The project initially sought to find sponsors for political prisoners, but with the 11J emergency, Luciana needed more people to help. The project now focuses on getting a bag of essentials to political prisoners every month, with the medicines they need too. They have delivered 186 bags up until now, and this figure is updated every time a bag is delivered. There is no differentiation between cases, they are all given equal priority. In order to receive donations, they have set up PayPal y Zelle accounts, for anyone wanting to join their efforts.

The group is guided by a list of detainees compiled by CUBALEX, a NGO that supports human rights in Cuba, and Prisoners Defenders another NGO that legally defends human rights. When they don’t have the information they need, they take action and find somebody who knows the family that needs help.

On the project’s Facebook page, with over 2000 followers, they follow legal proceedings, post about who these prisoners are, where they are being held and what their health condition is. They share families’ statements, they complain about poor diets and conditions in Cuban prisons.

Justicia 11J

The idea for this project was born the very same night of July 11th, in a conversation between a group of women’s rights advocates on WhatsApp. Other women have joined this initial group as volunteers and they created the Facebook group Desaparecidos SOS Cuba, scared after receiving reports on social media. “We immediately realized that a group where everybody could post wouldn’t be enough, we had to verify and organize this information,” linguists Eilyn Lombard and Camila Rodriguez, members of Justicia 11J, said.

They arranged shifts to approve what would be posted in the group, so that non-related information wouldn’t be shared. They began to work on an Excel list that would systemize most of the data available about people who had disappeared and were being detained.

The working group grew to nine women living both in and outside Cuba, and they also coordinate a group of fact-checkers in different provinces. Fact-checkers are friends, family members or some of the people who were in prison and have become a source of information about what happened.

They then created the Justicia 11J Facebook page, with thirteen demands that have guided their work. It operates as a kind of blog up until today, where small update reports are made, they share news based on their database and other matters of interest.

People in prison are found via their families, friends, former prisoners, acquaintances of members of civil society who, without any direct link, have information for whatever reason. “People are coming to us more and more to give us information. We have learned about many cases via reports on social media, and we always try to follow the trail until we can reach someone who can give us information as a primary source,” they explain. 

Emotional support has been key. The women at Justicia 11J say that they are constantly in touch with famillies, so they can talk about the legal proceedings their family members may face in prison, but also encouraging them to fight for their rights. Furthermore, the women in Cuba make visits to the families of those in police detention, in order to keep a more direct and cordial line of communication with them. 

They have formed alliances with other organizations that provide access to psychological support and have connected families with other social actors, such as the Catholic Church, so that they can also have this form of spiritual guidance.

In September, they set up a crowdfunding campaign on the Ko-fi platform, which consists of paying a symbolic coffee for $5, and they have received 595 donations to date. This aid has gone to families most in need, so they can especially have a defense attorney, so families can be in touch with the people in prison, and so prisoners and their families can report human rights violations.

“We make a note of who we do and don’t offer financial aid to, so we don’t assign double resources, so there’s no overlap,” they explain, “although there are many families who are so poor, that any help we can give is very little.”

Grupo de Acompañamiento de la Conferencia Cubana de Religiosos (Concur)

This group was founded as a result of July 11th, and is formed of religious people, diocesan priests and laypeople. “We don’t locate people in prison, it’s the families and friends who get in touch with us. We prefer it for people who want support to make the first step, because a lot of the time, these family members prefer to be anonymous,” explains Eduardo Llorens Nuñez, a Jesuit priest who serves at the San Miguel del Padron Parish Church in Havana, and at other chapels in this municipality.

Support is mainly spriritual and psychological. They also offer their legal expertise to advise people on what they should do, according to each case (habeas corpus, assigning a lawyer); as well as any advice about the legal proceeding if terms or phases during Criminal Procedure are not met.

They have helped approximately 60 families. Some of the cases they’ve worked on have now been released, others are awaiting trial and the rest have been given prison sentences.

“It’s important to help, to support and guide these families because most of them have never been involved in criminal proceedings; that is to say, these are people without a criminal record and any run-ins with the Law in the past, so they have no idea whatsoever about these proceedings. Also, most of the Cuban population are unaware of their rights, the steps they can take to demand them, who they can go to. We have an “illiterate population in legal matters” and this brings great legal neglect with no idea of how to act in these circumstances,” the priest said.

A lack of awareness goes hand-in-hand with fear and threats suffered by family members, who are assured by their own lawyers a lot of the time to “be calm”, and this ends up paralyzing them. Not doing anything also harms those in prison.

The “Donde tú caes, yo te levanto” (Wherever you fall, I’ll lift you up” campaign, by the San Isidro Movement

This support network began to develop after 11J, to support political prisoners both in and outside the San Isidro Movement (MSI) and as a gesture of solidarity amidst a context of shortages of food, medicines and basic essentials. The project is coordinated by art historian Anamely Ramos González, who is responsible for talking to prisoners’ families, aid deliveries from abroad and mediating with organizations offering legal counsel.

Artist Yanelys Nuñez Leyva, a founding member of MSI, is another coordinator, who manages funds and sends medicine to Cuba. “I talk to prisoners’ families, trying to find out who is in a more precarious situation, because there are lots of people who have their families’ support or from opposition organizations, and there are other people who have none of this. So, we talk to them, form an empathetic relationship, as many of them are afraid and very worried because State Security plays an important role in trying to break these alliances down,” she explains.

They have an open group on WhatsApp and Instagram called Botiquin MSI, for medicines to be sent in alliance with people in different provinces, which facilitate the movement of these supplies. They are also collaborating with other support initiatives to provide legal counsel and deliver food.

They try and give priority to people with chronic illnesses, minors and people who have elderly family members or children depending on them, and they keep contact throughout the entire legal proceeding. They collaborate by paying for lawyer services because some families can’t cover these expenses. They update their social networks to report if somebody is holding a hunger strike or is sick, if they have been denied habeas corpus or if the Public Prosecutor’s Office has requested a sentence, as a way to give visibility to and follow each case.

These aren’t the only initiatives out there. Ayuda a los presos políticos del 11J / Santa Clara offers a financial aid service via bank transfers or cash handouts. The Cubanos Canadienses por una Cuba Democrática group have also joined efforts on the island by reporting and its members have recently created a chain of fasts to join Bárbara Farrat Guillen’s hunger strike for the release of her son Jonathan Torres Farrat. These alliances not only give visibility to these cases, but they have also exposed the Cuban regime’s repressive mechanisms.

Read more from Cuba here on Havana Times.